The Importance of Meaningful Repetition

Kurt Meisenbach said: May 31, 2016
Kurt Meisenbach
Suzuki Association Member
Viola, Violin
Plano, TX
45 posts

Every skill requires practice to perfect. Practice involves repetition.

Many of us remember the 1976 Olympic Games in which Nadia Comaneci scored a series of perfect tens for the first time in Olympic history. I remember vividly her stunning performance on the uneven parallel bars. It was one and a half minutes of polished perfection.

I have often wondered how many times she repeated that same routine over multiple years to get it perfect. A Thousand? Ten thousand? It was a big number. Now ask yourself, before each repetition, did she say to herself, “OK, let’s do this another time and see what happens”? Not likely. More likely is that she and her coach had a specific and concrete objective for each repetition. And after each repetition they reviewed her results and planned for the next repeat. It was like Michelangelo removing one more tiny piece of marble to arrive at the perfection of the Pieta or the statue of David.

Also ask yourself, when she was thoroughly exhausted and could no longer concentrate on what she was doing did she continue to mindlessly repeat her routine? Good question. I don’t know for sure, but I suspect that her coach counseled her against this, as Nadia would be more prone to errors when she was exhausted and could no longer concentrate effectively. The coach was smart enough to know that you can’t get better by repeating your mistakes or by inventing new ones.

How much repetition is appropriate? The answer is personal. Although not all of us are competing in the 1976 Olympics, all of us desire to improve and this requires repetition. I remember as a student rehearsing eight measures of the violin and viola part of a Beethoven trio for over two hours to get the intonation right. It was worth it. Each repetition was done with a purpose and the violinist and I enjoyed both the experience and the result. Years later I was working on a Hindemith sonata. I put ten pennies on the desk next to my music stand, and then moved a penny each time I repeated the same difficult passage. It was a waste of time. I thought that sheer repetition would generate mastery, but just the opposite happened. My mindless, meaningless repetition made the passage more difficult and cumbersome to play. I had lost my focus.

Each time you repeat a passage (slowly, please), ask yourself the following questions:
- What are you trying to accomplish? Are your objectives clear?
- What did you accomplish with this repetition? Was it valuable?
- Are there related exercises that will assist in the perfection of this passage?
- Did you concentrate fully during this last repetition, or did your mind wander? Try to concentrate better on the next round.
- Have you made a good investment (was this quality practice?) in this passage? If so, don’t always expect immediate improvement. It takes the muscles and mind time to digest what they have just been told.

Your answers to these questions will tell you what you need to do next. You will learn to make your own decisions regarding repetition. What I can say with absolute confidence is that if you repeat something without asking yourself why, and without reviewing your results to see if you are making progress, you are probably wasting your time. If you can’t focus on why you are repeating a passage, return to it later when you can focus. Your mind must be actively involved when you practice, not just along for the ride. This requires concentration and it can be tiring when you are first doing it. Over time you will find that you can focus for longer periods of time and master the art of purposeful, meaningful repetition. Think Nadia Comaneci.

Your stamina and concentration period will vary each day. This is normal. Discipline yourself to focus and repeat your movements for longer periods of time, but don’t force it. Some days are better than others.

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